CodeNEXT Petitioners Shoot for Ballot Win

HomeCity of AustinCodeNEXT Petitioners Shoot for Ballot Win

Proposition J backers are cash poor, depending on volunteers for success

“This is about your right to vote on CodeNEXT, the son of CodeNEXT, the grandson of CodeNEXT, or whatever reincarnation of CodeNEXT comes along,” said Fred Lewis, who wrote the CodeNEXT petition ordinance that will appear as Proposition J on the November 6 ballot.

Lewis also formed Community Not Commodity to drum up community opposition to any and all sweeping changes to Austin’s land development code unless those changes have voter approval. Community Not Commodity organized numerous house parties in different neighborhoods, spreading word about perceptions of what CodeNEXT might do to the community fabric.

Opticos Design Inc. has been paid $7,558,484 to date for its work on the comprehensive rewrite of the land development code known as CodeNEXT, according to Austin Finance Online. Yet mounting criticism of what it might do if implemented caused the City Council to kill the project. That action does not prevent it from being resurrected, in whole or in part, for future consideration.

Prop J pep rally

“If Proposition J passes, you the community will have the final say on whether to adopt it,” Lewis said to a packed room at Threadgill’s World Headquarters last Thursday evening.

Lewis introduced boxer Casey Ramos, who over an 11-year period won 24 of 25 professional fights as a super featherweight. Ramos, said he is from East Austin and he is “progressive in a city that claims to be but isn’t. We came together for this,” he said. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Nelson Linder
Nelson Linder

“This is a fistfight,” said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin NAACP, who spoke after Ramos. “This is one last chance to stop the machine in this city that cares about nothing but money and power.”

Although Lewis announced the organization would not be endorsing candidates, the supportive crowd included three: mayoral candidate and former council member Laura Morrison, District 3 candidate Susana Almanza of PODER, and District 8 candidate Bobby Levinski, an attorney with the Save Our Springs Alliance.

The occasion was to kickoff a campaign to win voter support for passage of Proposition J on November 6, just 65 days later.

Ballot language viewed as barrier

The ballot will read:

Proposition J: Shall a City ordinance be adopted to require both a waiting period and subsequent voter approval period, a total of up to three years, before future comprehensive revisions to the City’s land development code become effective?

That ballot language was approved by the City Council. But conspicuously absent from it is the “CodeNEXT” moniker made odious by the proliferation of yard signs all over town proclaiming “CodeNEXT Wrecks Austin.”

That omission so upset the petitioners that an emergency Writ of Mandamus was filed directly with the Texas Supreme Court, seeking a last-minute order to revise the ballot wording.

The City of Austin responded with a lengthy brief defending the wording and the court rejected the writ.

Thus, Prop J backers will have to work with that council-approved language and try to make sure voters connect the dots between the yard signs and the less descriptive ballot language.

Bucking the tide but not stopping

The Supreme Court decision was just one more setback to a campaign that has met the City’s resistance at every turn since launching a petition drive a year ago, as reported by The Austin Bulldog.

The first sign of the City’s resistance surfaced early this year when, as The Austin Bulldog reported February 19, public libraries started cracking down on people gathering signatures for the CodeNEXT petition ordinance.

Bill Aleshire
Bill Aleshire

After a second signature gatherer was issued a criminal trespass warning, attorney Bill Aleshire on March 8 fired off a letter to the city manager, library director, and city attorney, to warn that litigation against the city would likely challenge the rules severely restricting petitioning.

As reported March 10 by The Austin Bulldog, the City suddenly lifted the ban against petitioning on library property and tasked the Library Commission with drafting new rules governing such conduct. (As The Austin Bulldog’s investigation published June 25, proved, the petitioning “problems” were a city invention. Inspection of library records dating back to 2006 indicated that not a single problem with petitioners gathering signatures at public libraries could be documented.)

More than 31,000 people signed petition

But, instead of placing the petition ordinance on the November 6 ballot, the council, relying on legal advice provided by an outside attorney, voted not to do so.

That triggered a lawsuit and a one-day hearing, reported by The Austin Bulldog July 2, 2018, that resulted in a court order to instruct the City Council to put the CodeNEXT petition ordinance on the ballot.

While knuckling under to obey the court order, the City Council took one last swipe by striking “CodeNEXT” from the ballot language. Hence the ill-fated Supreme Court challenge.

Now a financially broke uprising must, unless mega-donors suddenly emerge, depend on luck and pluck to win the hearts and minds of voters in the next two months.

Little money, recruiting volunteers

The latest Campaign Finance Report for the IndyAustin political action committee (linked below), covering the period ending June 30, 2018, shows the group had already spent $47,557, had no cash on hand, and had outstanding loans of $10,600. Lewis himself has loaned $13,500 to the campaign.

“This will be a grassroots campaign,” Lewis said. We need your help. Talk to your neighbors. There will be no TV, no slick mailers.”

In addition to Community Not Commodity and IndyAustin, the core group of organizations backing Prop J includes the Austin Neighborhoods Council, PODER, La Raza, and Save Our Springs Alliance.

Bill Bunch
Bill Bunch

Attorney Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, called on those at the kickoff event to “Dedicate yourselves between now and November 6. This has to be a grassroots effort.”

“Go out there and work hard and we will win,” Lewis said. “‘CodeNEXT Wrecks Austin’ drove the council crazy—and it worked.”

“We have support from progressives and conservatives because everyone loves their neighborhood,” Lewis said. “Vote for what’s best for your family and your neighborhood.”

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City Attorney Anne Morgan’s August 8, 2018, memo to Mayor and Council, Ballot Language for Citizen-Initiated Ordinances on November 6, 2018 ballot (2 pages)

City Attorney letter hiring Bickerstaff Heath for legal advice on CodeNEXT petition validity (12 pages)

City Defendants’ Trial Brief on the Merits, June 22, 2018  (89 pages)

City of Austin’s Response in Opposition to Original Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus, August 23, 2018 (156 pages) concerning the CodeNEXT petition ordinance

IndyAustin Special-Purpose Political Action Committee Campaign Finance Report, July 16, 2018 (103 pages)

Legal advice on CodeNEXT petition provided by Bickerstaff Heath, February 28, 2018

Original Emergency Petition for Writ of Mandamus, August 17, 2018 (113 pages)

Relators’ Original Verified Petition for Writ of Mandamus, June 1, 2018 (6 pages)

Relators’ Trial Brief in Support of Their Petition for Writ of Mandamus, June 20, 2018  (34 pages)

Relators’ Rebuttal Brief in Support of Their Petition for Writ of Mandamus, June 29, 2018  (19 pages)

Related Bulldog coverage:

Ballot Language Draws Second Lawsuit, August 17, 2018

Council’s Ballot Language Triggers Lawsuit(s): Petition to be filed directly with the Texas Supreme Court to challenge City Council’s wording for a ballot proposition, August 11, 2018

Good Idea or Trojan Horse? More than $137,000 in ‘dark money’ spent to put Austin efficiency audit on the ballot, July 27, 2018

Efficiency Audit Headed to Ballot: Citizens for an Accountable Austin PAC claims more than 21,000 signatures were validated, July 12, 2018

Attorneys Argue CodeNEXT Petition: CodeNEXT petition backers seek court order to force City of Austin to put petition on the November 6 ballot, July 2, 2018

Petitioning ‘Problem’ a City Invention: Austin Library Department has no evidence of problems with signature gathering until CodeNEXT crackdown, June 25, 2018

Petition Seeks Austin Efficiency Audit: People are already hustling signatures to get this measure on the November 6 ballot, May 25, 2018

Library Commission May Protect Petition Rights: But competing draft rules pushed by city staff would restrict signature gathering to designated spaces, May 21, 2018

Library Director Misled Library Commission: ‘Austin Monitor’ reported Roosevelt Weeks said petitioning banned by ‘majority of urban libraries,’ April 12, 2018

IndyAustin Nears Petition Goal: Plans to continue petitioning at city library facilities despite having been barred before, March 6, 2018

Library Commission Debates Petitioning Rights: Petitioners appeal for access to library properties, library director and attorney adamantly opposed, March 2, 2018

IndyAustin Petitioners Barred from Libraries: One IndyAustin petitioner issued a trespass notice to prohibit setting foot on Spicewood Library property, February 19, 2018

IndyAustin Pushing Three Petitions: Grassroots group organizing to get measures on the May 5, 2018 ballot, September 12, 2017

Trust indicators:

Ken Martin has been covering local government and politics in the Austin area since 1981. See more on Ken on the About page. Email [email protected].

Who funds this work? This report was made possible by contributions to The Austin Bulldog, which operates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for investigative reporting in the public interest. You can help support this independent coverage by making a tax-deductible contribution.

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